The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.068   Monday, 29 February 2016

 

From:        Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         Monday, 29 February 2016

Subject:    SBReview_24: A Fury in the Words:  Love and Embarrassment in Shakespeare’s Venice

 

[Editor’s NoteAll SBReviews are peer-reviewed and are archived at the SHAKSPER web site’s Scholarly Resources section: http://shaksper.net/scholarly-resources/book-reviews in book-quality PDF files.]

 

 

SBReview_24:

 

Harry Berger Jnr. A Fury in the Words:  Love and Embarrassment in Shakespeare’s Venice, New York, 2013. Fordham University Press. pp. ix-x + 229.

 

Reviewed by John Drakakis

University of Stirling

 

Harry Berger Jnr. begins his discussion of ‘Love and embarrassment in Shakespeare’s Venice’ with an acknowledgement of R.P. Blackmur’s deliberate ‘misreading’ of a street sign that he takes to be a key to the understanding of language as gesture. The ‘sleeping monster’ that Blackmur awakened in Burger leads him to readings of Shakespeare’s two Venetian plays that he admits constitutes “a similar if monstrously more complex process of misreading” that he goes on immediately to name “close interpretation.” He immediately perceives a problem with the close reading of the texts of plays in that it   “interrupts the rhythm and flow of theatrical performance in order to create problems where no problems exist” (p. 2. My italics).

 

This is a provocative way of introducing a feature of Shakespeare’s plays that Berger invites us to perceive as part of “a general fiction of rehearsal.”  Actors, he argues, “distinguish what goes on between characters from what goes on within the language that characters speak,” and the distinction that he invites us to consider is between “the interlocutory and intralocutory properties of dialogue, where the latter is “semantic and lexical” and is the repository of “intralocutory or “inward” meaning.”  We are also invited to accede to the claim that “actors understand that even as their characters engage in interlocutory action with each other, their characters’ words engage in intralocutory acts on their own.” On the surface of it, this observation looks like a version of Derridean ‘play’, and although it leads in principle to a fluidity of interpretation, Berger seems to have something else also in mind.  The idea that actors “discover that Shakespeare’s language insists on doing its own thing, apart from the things its speakers intend it to do” (p. 3) raises two important questions; the first one is, who puts the ‘meaning’ in Shakespeare?  The late Terence Hawkes provided an eloquent and complex answer to this question in his book Meaning by Shakespeare (1992) and went on to lay the foundation for a literary-presentist challenge to the notion that somehow Shakespeare’s language works all by itself.  But, perhaps, this is not all that Berger has in mind. On the one hand, he appears to have a degree of contempt for the “slit-eyed perusal” of the text “in which every scene becomes a problem scene” (ibid.), and yet there is a sense in which his own methodology is curiously dependent upon it. The second question hovers between one of the tenets of New Criticism in its gesture towards the autonomy of the text, but then veers into psychoanalysis with its claim that intralocution operates beneath the plane of articulation but is not, it would seem, equivalent to the Lacanian ‘real’.  Indeed, Berger’s concern with what he calls “the ‘inwardness’ of language as gesture” brings together a neo-Kristevan concern with “the goings-on that irrupt within speech, the things that language does for its speakers, or with them, or to them, the things it says about them, regardless of their express intentions and interlocutory strategies,” on the one hand, a quasi-Stanislavskian compulsion on the part of the actor (here aligned with the critic in a “fiction of interpretation as rehearsal”) “to expose what characters feel, not what they ought to say” (p. 9).  Expressed as a formal property of language, this is an ingenious formulation that establishes a common ground between theatrical and ‘literary’ criticism. 

 

The initial examples he chooses to illustrate his point are not from the Venetian plays, and of the two he offers, the one from Macbeth might serve as an indication of the distinction he seeks to explicate. The moment is Banquo’s response to Duncan’s murder, and his instruction to “his fellow thanes:” “When we have our naked frailties hid, / That suffer in exposure, let us meet” (2.3.126-7). On the one hand this is an interlocutory utterance, “a simple directive or summons.” But, argues Berger, “at the intralocutory level there is a fury in his words.”  He continues:

 

“When we have our naked frailties hid” is a gesture of fear, bad conscience and moral weakness. It is a parodic gesture of mutual distrust: “when we have protected ourselves from each other.”

 

It is also a gesture of embarrassment: “when we have protected ourselves from ourselves.” The whole of Macbeth is about the anxiety of characters who try to hide the “naked frailties” of their murderous lust for power and who worry about exposure. Among the “frailties” Banquo hides is his motivated failure to tell Duncan about the witches’ prophecy, thus insuring the old king’s ignorance of and “exposure” to the murder he “suffers”.  (ibid.,  pp. 3-4)

 

It would not be difficult to assent to most of this. The king has been murdered, hence the fear of those who remain alive. The “bad conscience”, however, is fanciful since there is no suggestion that Banquo regrets not informing Duncan about the encounter with the Weird Sisters; indeed he has had his own concerns about what their prophecies signify and before the murder he is at pains to protect himself from them. The clause “naked frailties hid” recalls the ‘hidden’ frailty that was exposed earlier, and the extent to which Macbeth it at pains not to express it, and his desires, in words. This clause repeats in condensed form something that as theatre audience we have already seen and heard, and although it cannot be anything of which Banquo is fully conscious himself, the link is made by the audience whose collective memory is activated by what has already been said earlier about “nakedness”, “frailty”, and the Macbeths’ capacity for “hiding” their ambitions and their actions. 

 

We might also note the immediate realism of Banquo’s utterance: nakedness (though not necessarily nudity) and frailty are features of a post-lapsarian existence, and the resultant ‘weakness’ that inheres in uncontrolled ‘Nature’, and that emerges only in the night-time is something that a little earlier in the play Banquo has asked “merciful powers” to protect him from.  That Banquo’s utterance is concentrated is not in doubt, but the protection that he may seek from “himself” has a very specific application, and cannot be inflated to universal proportions.  Here Berger’s “slit-eyed perusal” displays a certain filtering of detail, while occluding some of the historically specific cultural questions that might have formed the basis of a speculation on the sophisticated oral practices that a Jacobean audience might have been expected to bring to bear on the experience of seeing and listening.       

 

Of course, the fun of Shakespearean interpretation is that we can quibble over particular readings, and there is a welcome tantalising energy, sometimes innocent, sometimes faintly mischievous, that runs throughout this fascinating book.  And it is the example from Macbeth that crystallises a particular problem in that it seems to herald a retreat into the ‘character’ criticism of the last century.  Berger invokes Anthony Giddens on the topic of institutional hegemony to describe “forms of consciousness involved in ‘the reflexive monitoring of conduct’”, but he amalgamates this, curiously, with a notion of the dramatic character’s intentions and motives:

 

Shakespeare’s texts dramatise situations in which the characters may not want to, may try not to, confront and report on “their motives”. On the contrary, they may “wish” or “try” not to become aware of their motives. They may wish or try to disown knowledge. Shakespeare equips them with the ability to occlude, ignore, or forget – to disown or “disremember” – whatever interferes with their belief in a chosen discourse. (p. 11)

 

What he calls a discursive “practical consciousness” (his italics) that involves knowledge or belief that cannot be expressed discursively is balanced in Berger’s lexicon by a “practical unconsciousness” which he claims is “a storehouse of disowned knowledge” (ibid.).  This thesis has its attractions, but what in an example such as Polonius’s momentary forgetfulness in Hamlet where the character/actor seems to forget his own lines (2.1.51-2) can be traced to the play’s preoccupation with ‘memory’, is extended in Macbeth to provide an unusually candid definition of the operations of the Jacobean unconscious.  Prior to the moment that Berger elucidates, and before the murder of Duncan, Banquo reveals not only how the unconscious operates, but also what its contents might be. “Those thoughts that Nature gives way to in repose” are not repressions in the Freudian sense, but suppressions, in this case of the Weird Sisters’ prophesies, that in sleep would be the stuff of nightmares.  Here there appears to be no discursive dislocation involved since Banquo is fully conscious of what he knows the ‘unconscious’ contains, and how vulnerable the state of sleep is.  Nor could we say that he is somehow in denial since what Banquo is ‘disowning’ (perhaps in this case a better word would be ‘refusal’) here is not ‘knowledge’ but certain of the consequences that could follow from the possession of that knowledge if he were, as Macbeth later does, to act upon it. 

 

All of this makes Berger’s ‘practical unconscious’ rather problematical, since it invites the interpreter to enter the realm of free speculation about what the dramatic character (and the actor) may be concealing. 

 

This is an important methodological quibble because if we accept Berger’s categorisations at face value, then we give ourselves permission to slide between the demands of a formal philosophically augmented discursive analysis and a neo-Bradleyan ‘character’ analysis that may or may not be refurbished by the insights of psychoanalysis.  Berger moves perfunctorily, though not entirely unproblematically, through Kant to a Sartrean “skew” in which he argues, “it may be necessary to curtail knowledge in order to make room for bad faith” (p. 12).  It is in this way that Sartre’s “inward turn” of consciousness (Being and Nothingness (1984), p. 48) can be made serviceable for Shakespeare’s Venetian plays where, it is claimed, characters “curtail or disown knowledge by switching on the gestural power of the discourses stored in practical unconsciousness” (ibid.).  Significantly, and to some extent reductively, it is, for Berger, characters who “switch on” or, perhaps more neutrally, disclose this “gestural power” that is the unconscious of discourse.  Of course, once having identified this mobile category, then discussion, as in its Derridean mode, can go anywhere.  This may not be quite what Berger intends, even though this does free him from certain textual constraints.  The problem still remains, though, of distinguishing between knowledge denied (for whatever reason) to dramatic characters, but made freely available (except, perhaps, in the case of Hermione’s ‘death’ in The Winter’s Tale) to an audience or a reader. Berger’s approach also raises the question of how far it is reasonable or legitimate for interpretation to speculate about the motives of fictional characters? 

 

Both The Merchant of Venice and Othello have attracted a plethora of explanations about the ‘motives’ of their characters: about what they reveal, what they suppress, or indeed, about what they might repress.  Throughout Berger expresses admiration for the late Janet Adelman’s book, Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice (208), a very complex and condensed account of those theological, social, and political forces that sustained late Sixteenth-century relations between the two unstable categories of ‘Jew’ and ‘Christian.’  In some respects, Berger aims at a complementary suppleness in his approach to the Venetian plays, aiming to explore what he calls “the intralocutory underground of practical unconsciousness” with a view to uncovering “the complicity of Portia and Antonio with Shylock, and of Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, and Emilia with Iago” (p. 15).

 

In her book, Adelman locates the difficulty between Jews and Christians in Venice in a complex Christian anxiety that is the result of moving from the religion of the Father to that of the Son, and she traces it through various theological commentaries that point to a deep unconscious affinity between Christian and Jew.  Berger’s version of this emerges in his focus on the ‘merry bond’ in The Merchant of Venice and upon Antonio’s attitude towards what he calls “Shylock’s outlandish terms” (p. 22).  So far, so good.  But things take a curiously novelistic turn when Antonio is accused of meeting the conditions of the bond “with weird alacrity” (ibid.) and that “some threat to his personal being, was what he wanted to elicit and put on display” (p. 23).  Of course, what the link is between Antonio’s initial expression of sadness and his acceptance of the ‘merry bond’ is never made clear.  Indeed, it is not until Act 4, scene 1, that Antonio is prepared to sacrifice himself for Bassanio that we can talk of public display, and by that time – even though the scenario resembles a Christian agony—this is far from what Berger detects in the initial encounter with Shylock as “the embarrassing spectacle of Antonio showing off before Bassanio.”  It is possible, of course, to resist Berger’s speculations here while at the same time agreeing with his conclusion that “Antonio is a problem” (ibid.).

 

This is a cue for a discussion of that perennial chestnut that Berger calls “Antonio’s Blues”.  The dialogue signifies, to be sure, “more than generic social friction” (p. 25), and Berger’s intuition that his “first impression of Shakespeare’s Venice is of a community of speakers who don’t particularly like or trust each other” (p. 23).  Antonio’s perfunctory dismissal of Salarino and Salanio (he accepts Dover Wilson’s contraction of the ‘three Sallies’ into two) is, he argues, “his way of protecting his privacy in a nosy world where everyone gazes and squints at everyone else and entertains theories about them” (p. 25).  Berger only hints at what Antonio may be protecting here, though one suspects that it supports the familiar claim that it is a ‘love’ that dare not speak its name.  If we were being encouraged to think of Venice as a bourgeois society or as a Chekhovian location, then Berger’s account would be more persuasive than it is.  Venice is a republic and the issue is the vexed question of money: who lends, who borrows, and under what circumstances and with what consequences in a society where ‘strangers’ are supposedly welcomed.  Of course, it is difficult to be certain whether Berger’s translations and paraphrases of dialogue and his speculations about ‘the practical unconsciousness’ of characters is supposed to sit on top of the accretions that generations of critics (and he has read most of them), or whether this critical method represents a significant departure from them.

 

Usury is, as Berger acknowledges, an important focus in the play, but for him Antonio is caught in what he identifies as “negative usury” that involves him in giving “more than he takes by taking no more than he gives.” (p.28) As Berger correctly observes, this is the structure of Marcel Mauss’s ‘The Gift’, but projected onto Antonio (and possibly Portia) it is transformed into a form of “donation” that makes the Venetians seem even less attractive:  

 

If usury boils down to taking more than you give, the donor’s discourse is a form of negative or deferred usury: it consists of giving more than you take in a manner that makes it possible for you to end up getting more than you gave. Negative usury as a strategy aims to embarrass the victims of donation by placing them under a moral debt thy can’t easily pay off, much less shake off. (p. 29)  

 

Nor is the aside that ‘usury’ “in this context is metaphoric: a specific economic practice is extended to a general ethical practice” (p. 29, fn. 4) very much help here.  What seems to be missing from this speculation is a larger historical context that is just as important in shaping Berger’s “practical unconsciousness”, a context that would extend to conventions of male friendship, the plethora of moral issues surrounding the taking of interest, and the location of Venice as a geographical space that aroused contrary political and libidinous feelings among Elizabethan commentators.  As it stands Berger’s “practical unconscious” turns out to involve a particularly devious form of protecting personal privacy.  Again it is the case that the play continually exposes the difference between what seems to be and what is – nowhere more problematically than in Bassanio’s comments about female temptation immediately before making his casket choice in Act 3, scene 2.  We might further enquire what the grounds are for claiming that Bassanio is in any way an ‘embarrased’ victim of Antonio’s donation (p. 29) beyond a psychological speculation concerning the structure of the Maussian ‘gift’.  As a prodigal aristocrat, the ‘Lord’ Bassanio appears to be unembarrassable, even when at the end of the play he is confronted with his broken oath to Portia, and even though the gift of her ring to Bassanio tars her with the same brush as that used to decorate or embellish Antonio’s financial donation (pp. 30-1).  In circumstances like this, a pragmatic psychology threatens to reduce to an innovative pragmatic psychology, what might have developed as an intricate historical enquiry. This may be, what motivates actors, and it may also be what entertains modern audiences, but it falls a little short of elucidating what we try to identify as the text’s discourses, which in the case of The Merchant of Venice are not always that clear or indeed consistent. 

 

In what Berger takes to be the competition between Antonio and Portia for Bassanio, Portia comes out looking more like the scheming Venetian housewife than the ‘golden fleece’ that Salerio (and Bassanio) takes her for.  Indeed, she ‘embarrasses’ Bassanio and Antonio, and her “O love, dispatch all business and begone” (3.2.320) is interpreted by Berger as “an act of generosity” but in a “skirmish” in which “the gesture of donation trounces that of the self-sacrificial victim” (p. 33).  Berger is entitled to resist the “Platonising” of the description of the friendship between Antonio and Bassanio but he takes her reference to “this Antonio” at 3.4.16 as further evidence that she is “at war with Antonio” – he inflects this deictic phrase with a paraphrase that hovers between a conscious strategy and the practical unconscious: “(Whoever he is)” (pp. 34-5).  There is something odd going on in the play at this point.  We can accept, perhaps with some reservation, Berger’s reading of her dismissal of her “latest good deed” as “a self-conscious gesture of embarrassment uttered as a reflex to her auto-laudatory outburst” (p. 35), but can we forget that the Portia who is speaking at Act 3, scene 4.10-21, is the very same person who two scenes earlier had submitted herself “to be directed, / As from her lord, her governor, her king” (3.2.164-5).  It may indeed be the case that Bassanio’s request for the means to save Antonio follows immediately behind his acquisition of Portia’s riches, and that this might be the cause of some embarrassment on his part.  But just how manipulative is Portia being at this point?  For her Antonio is a mirror image of Bassanio and is therefore someone to whom she feels justified in extending her ‘love’.  If we read this triangular relationship against the grain then a fault-line emerges that opens up the difference between homosocial and heterosexual relationship, and of the kind that Shakespeare explored with greater subtlety, and even greater candour, in the opening scene of The Winter’s Tale.  Berger develops this into what he calls “a battle for competitive donation” (p. 67), a version of René Girard’s ‘mimetic desire,’ that makes for a much darker play altogether.

 

For Berger, if we view the ensuing court proceedings through the eyes of the disguised Portia then we “must share her embarrassment” caused “by the husband with whom she has contracted to share life after Happy Ending, and by the professional scapegoat he is attached to” (p. 36). This is to make a soap opera out of a scene that seems to be deliberately constructed to suggest a repetition of the foundational moment of Christianity, and to risk secularising what is probably the most serious moment in the play. Of course that seriousness is never allowed to prevail since the wager that Portia and Nerissa place on Antonio’s freedom will be Bassanio’s (and Gratiano’s) marital fidelity.

 

All this is not to dispute that there is something very odd going in the Venice and Belmont of this play.  And while we may quibble over some of the particular readings offered by Berger, and speculate about the operations of his own practical unconscious, what cannot be disputed is the inventive manner in which he sets about his task. His account of The Merchant of Venice is eclectic, resourceful, and inventive, unearthing issues that taken collectively make this play even more problematical than critics have found it.

 

Berger is on surer ground in his account of Othello largely because this play deliberately invites speculation about motive and action much more clearly than in The Merchant of Venice. Here we are invited to evaluate empirical evidence, albeit from a position in which as audience we come to occupy an increasing omniscient position. Berger is correct to observe the play’s “comic backwash lengthening in the wake of The Merchant of Venice” (pp. 87-8), but the claim that “the embarrassing protagonist” that Othello replaces is Bassanio” (p.88) is more questionable.  The link between the two plays raises some interesting questions about what constitutes a Shakespearean ‘source’ beyond what Berger supplies.  Indeed, Shakespeare takes from the earlier play the Lorenzo-Jessica parallel plot and fuses it with the Portia-Morocco episode, steering the action away from its venal emphasis in order to expose another facet of Venice’s treatment of the figure of the ‘stranger’.  Moreover, it is only if we accept Berger’s structure of ‘embarrassment’ in the earlier play, that his claim that, here it is Desdemona who is “the embarrassee” (p. 88) can be made to stick. The book as a whole takes its title from Desdemona’s puzzlement at Othello’s accusatory ‘words’ and seeks to probe what separates them from Othello’s “fury”.  And it is this that prompts further investigation into the ‘practical unconscious’ of Venetian discourse. 

 

Berger is preoccupied initially with the play’s withholding of information about Cassio’s role in Othello’s courtship of Desdemona (pp. 90-91), and this is one of a number of questions of the withholding of information that emerge in the play.  At this point Girard’s triangulated ‘dance’ of mimetic desire is invoked to explain Othello’s deployment of a go-between, and here the explanation extends beyond the confines of the play; in Act 3, scene 3, “we learn for the first time that the three principals have been choreographed in René Girard’s dance of mimetic desire since before the play began” (p. 91).  There is a danger with this kind of reasoning since it smacks of the “how many children had Lady Macbeth” question.  There is also other information that only emerges, as it were, tangentially, one of the most important being the uncertain role that Brabantio played in Othello’s courtship of his daughter.  We see Brabantio in two ‘states’: in the first he refuses to believe Iago and Roderigo, but once he succumbs to the carefully engineered ‘proof’ we see him ventriloquising the attitude of Iago.  On occasions of this kind, Berger seems to be more fascinated by psychological generalisation – by what he thinks that people generally would do in these situations—than he is by the dramatic context that over-determines the characters’ positions. What happens in Venice could happen, the assumption seems to be, behind the picket fences of middle America and/or in the ingenious plots of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.  But this should not be allowed to denigrate the kinds of questions that Berger asks.  We might be persuaded by the claim that “since Othello is an outsider who lacks confidence, he resorts to a go-between, and he sees in Cassio everything that he himself is not: white, young, handsome, elegant, always at ease among the likes of Desdemona” (p. 91).  Except that this is not what Desdemona says when asked to justify herself, and it is not what Othello thinks until Iago has made him think again about his wife’s fidelity.  Berger invokes the support of Grahame Bradshawe who in Misrepresentations: Shakespeare and the Materialists (1993) observes that the news of Cassio’s role in Othello’s courtship “is news to Iago as well as to spectators and readers” because it forces them “to reconsider, re-evaluate, reinterpret everything that has occurred since the beginning of the play” (My italics). But this is exactly the point, and lest we get too quickly sucked into the racist, misogynistic, patriarchal discourse of Venice, we are given two early demonstrations of the dangers of making up our minds prematurely: the one, as we observe Brabantio’s inadequate empirical investigation, and the deadly conclusion to which it will eventually lead, and the other as we observe the Duke receiving different kinds of information before deciding on a sound naval strategy against an external enemy, the Turks.  To extend the enquiry beyond the play is to risk falling ourselves into the trap that Iago sets for all of the main characters in this drama.  The point also is, surely, that insignificant details, such as Desdemona’s comment to Othello in Iago’s presence about Cassio’s services as go-between, can be turned inside out by a character who has is accused by his wife of his having had “some such squire…That turned your wit the seamy side without” (4.2.147-8). Desdemona is unaware of the semantic ‘play’ of language nor is Othello until ‘honest’ Iago has got to work on him. She is also unaware of the significance of the handkerchief until Othello discloses it to her. 

 

It is these discordances within the play that indeed do prompt the sorts of questions that Berger asks, although the range of possible answers serve to exacerbate the mobility of what he calls the ‘practical unconscious’.  There is, to be sure, a very real tension that surrounds “the contrast between silence and openness in the play” (p. 98), but there is also the danger that the notion of conspiracy is carried just a little too far.  For all its curious narrative inconsistencies, indeed, perhaps, in spite of them, each of these events, and the information that they yield is very carefully contextualised.  Already by Act 1, scene 3, Berger is prepared to side with Iago against Othello.  Again it is the case that everything Iago says throughout the play “contains a grain of truth” (p. 106).  The question is: do we seek for the grain of ‘truth’ in everything that those who come into contact with Iago say?  And how do we judge what to include and what to omit?  Berger’s conclusion seems to be that we cannot distinguish because everything assumes a primary importance thereby justifying a series of separate enquiries into behaviour and motive; for example, Othello is as ‘bombastic’ as Iago says he is, and this becomes evidence of his ‘embarrassment’, and much follows from that premature conclusion.  What seems to be missing from this is the way in which insinuated ‘information’ can colour our perception. We need to wait, like the Duke, before making up our minds.

 

Desdemona is at the heart of Berger’s account of the play, and he characterises her as “’a deserving woman’ confident in the fidelity of her love but confident also in the power of the sexuality she controls” (p. 110).  Critics have for some time tried to square the self-possessed figure of Act 1, scene 3, who sees Othello’s “visage in his mind” (1.3.254) with the figure who exchanges bawdy banter with Iago at Act 2, scene 1.  This difficulty could be further expanded by drawing in the figure at Act 4, scene 3, who, after she has been spurned by Othello asks Emilia if “there be such women do abuse their husbands / In such kind?” (4.3.61-2).  The apparent inconsistence here is odd, but it does resemble Othello’s own acceptance of Iago’s ‘honesty’ while at the same time recognising that the latter’s body language are “tricks of custom” that are available to “a false disloyal knave,” but in “a man that’s just / They’re close denotements, working from the heart, / That passion cannot rule.” (4.3.124-7). The point is, surely, that Othello and Iago are not what they seem, the one by nature and the other by design.  Othello’s empiricism seems to be deficient, in that he sees only one side of his ‘ensign’, whereas Iago can fabricate evidence to sustain particular partisan viewpoint.  If Desdemona and Cassio get drawn into this complex web of deceit it is surely not because they themselves have hidden agendas, but because their open gestures can be manufactured to fit Iago’s narrative. Desdemona is emphatically not a Venetian housewife, though she can acknowledge the type. Consequently, when Othello, under Iago’s tutelage describes her as “that cunning whore of Venice” (4.2.92), it is after she has been forced to defend herself against his ruthless Iago-like deconstruction of particular elements her own discourse. 

 

Cassio is an even trickier case because his courtier-like behaviour can be interpreted both ways.  Also, his mysterious liaison with the suggestively named Bianca does little to stabilise our perception of him. The intricate web that Berger weaves – and he is able to find ample critical evidence to support his arguments – raises the question of how far his own interpretation is dependent upon the perspective that Iago persistently insinuates.  For example, can we say objectively that “the politesse of erotic insinuation remains the active core of all Cassio’s graduated performances”? (p. 111).  Perhaps we should remember that Desdemona is no Isabella confronted with a duplicitous Angelo, nor does she give Othello substantial cause to think that she might be.  Both hers and Cassio’s gestures are persistently judged by onstage and offstage audiences, and there is a discrepancy between what one interpretation fabricates, and what the other knows.  If we, or readers, take our cue from Iago then we become complicit in the fate of Desdemona.  Berger is right, in the case of Cassio to suggest that what may from one perspective be a flirtation with Emilia at 2.1.97-99 is part of a general strategy whereby “he busily extends his manners downward” (p. 111).  But surely, in the presence of Iago almost every character is persuaded to “extend” their “manners downwards” none more so than Emilia herself in Act 5, scene 1, when she puts her finger exactly on what it is that over-determines female subjectivity: “Then let them use us well: else let them know, / The ills we do, their ills instruct us so” (5.1.101-2).  This process of shaping response permeates the play, and cannot, it seems to me, be replaced by some autonomous motivation the search for whose origins can be undertaken relatively independently from the dramatic complex structure that imposes certain parameters upon meaning.  The Gordian knot that Berger expertly, and tantalisingly weaves intertwines the motivation for the actor’s realisation in performance (and perhaps ‘reading’ as species of performance) of the character’s motivations, with the textual web of significations that point to an historical ‘practical unconscious’ that envelops and over-determines their artificial behaviour.  The two do not always coincide.

 

Berger’s treatment of Desdemona offers an insight into drift of his speculations.  He asserts that after her admission of the apparent misplacement of her handkerchief Desdemona’s “heated exchange with Othello displays an interest in keeping him angry, but angry on her terms, not his.” Even more, he suggests that Desdemona harps on Cassio in this exchange almost purposely, as part of a domestic quarrel that “has everything to do with gender – with the struggle of will between her and Othello – and nothing to do with sex.” 

 

Berger suggests further that her behaviour, or as he puts it, “her strategy is consistent with and reinforces her refusal to acknowledge Othello’s jealousy” (p. 160).  This is not unreasonable, but what follows makes of Desdemona’s approach a demonstration of wilful stupidity in that “the refusal is self-blinding.  It accompanies behaviour that seems, even more perversely, to arouse and intensify the jealousy she refuses to acknowledge, the jealousy that gives her vantage, if not to exclaim on Othello, then to dramatise her injured merit” (pp. 160-1).  Since Berger’s initial concern was with discourse, then what this reveals is the gap between Othello’s appropriation of Iago’s reductively masculine view of Venetian women, and Desdemona’s innocent, and not unreasonable insistence that Othello rectify his decision in relation to Cassio.  What Desdemona does not know at this point (but we do) is what has happened to make her husband think that she has been unfaithful.  Of course, Desdemona is concerned to justify her innocence, but that surely is the extent of her own “self-justification”. She certainly does, as Berger indicates, refuse to “acknowledge the jealousy” but she couples it, we are told, “with her persistence in rubbing the salt of Cassio into its wound” (p. 161).  Berger brings two separate observations into a causal relation with each other and the linear connection implies that Desdemona is guilty of something. There are plenty of instances in Shakespeare where characters talk past each other, and where the issue is competing meanings.  Few have such tragic consequences as in Othello. But Berger suggests that there is a further depth beneath discourse (something perhaps not too dissimilar from the Lacanian ‘real’) that haunts this play.  If the kaleidoscope is shaken in one direction then it reveals a Kristevan pattern, if in another direction, then a Girardian triangulation of mimetic desire, if from another, then it is how all couples behave in fraught domestic situations. Berger’s reading is so democratic in this respect that the reader can take his/her pick, and this is part of the appeal of this book.

 

While there are plenty of grounds for disagreement with aspects of Berger’s suggestive linking of The Merchant of Venice and Othello, he goes out of his way to engage in collegial discussion. There is also much to agree with, and that provides a balance that is clearly designed to stimulate further thought.  Berger is a free spirit who speaks as he finds, is prepared to reveal his own eclectic critical predilections and who does not appear to mind if his readers turn his theory of the ‘practical unconscious’ back upon him.  But what shines from every page in this detailed and complicated argument is the passionate and enthusiastic desire to debate, a rare phenomenon in an academic world that is in danger of forsaking its pursuit of knowledge for a drab and vulgar professionalism. This is a book that anybody interested in these two puzzling yet thoroughly engrossing plays absolutely needs to read. Its delightful irritations, provocations, cajolements, and its traversals of the minute detail of the criticism that these plays have attracted over the last half-century cannot but excite the reader or the spectator, and there is also much food for thought for the actor. 

 

 

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